After Saturday’s 2–1 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup final, Arsène Wenger became the first manager to win the tournament seven times, and Arsenal surpassed Manchester United as the winningest club in the history of England’s oldest cup competition. While his team’s performance was impressive and his record is unlikely to ever be broken, Wenger’s future remains in doubt. Before the final, he claimed to not know if it would be his last game as Arsenal manager, but after lifting the trophy, he told reporters that he still thought he was the right man for the job. There is a board meeting on Tuesday, and a decision will be announced soon after.
For the first time in the Frenchman’s 21 years in North London, Arsenal failed to finish in the Premier League’s top four. While rivals appointed tactically astute managers, Arsenal and Wenger showed few signs of progression, and before the final, the club’s relationship with its fans seemed worse than ever, as protests have called for both the manager’s and the major shareholders’ heads.
Yet, none of that quite explains why Arsenal should split up with their long-term steward. The primary reason the club should appoint a new manager is that the ideal man for the job might have just hit the market.
Like Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann, Borussia Dortmund’s Thomas Tuchel is one of the many promising young coaches making names for themselves in Germany. After a recurring cruciate injury cut his playing career short, he took to coaching with Stuttgart’s under-19 side and at his former club Augsburg before moving to Mainz as the under-19 manager. His break in senior football came in 2009, when Mainz offered him the role of first-team head coach after they gained promotion back to the Bundesliga. He was just 34 years old.
At Mainz, Tuchel managed to get his team to consistently outdo their expectations. In his first season, he guided them to ninth, and in the following season they finished fifth and qualified for the Europa League. With limited resources and a high squad turnover, the young coach created a stable team with a flexible approach — adapting not only to the players at his disposal, but crucially to the opposition, too. “We had to come up with ideas because we knew [we’re] inferior as a team,” Tuchel told a German think tank.
Despite enjoying five successful years with the club, Tuchel decided to take a sabbatical at the end of the 2013–14 season. His departure from Mainz was fuelled by a supposedly tense relationship with former director Christian Heidel. And it seems almost certain that he will now leave Dortmund after falling out with the board over disagreements in transfer strategy. Tuchel’s past relationships with upper management should worry any club, but for Arsenal, the risk is worth it.
Tuchel returned after two years away from the sport when Borussia Dortmund appointed him to replace Jürgen Klopp, the current Liverpool manager. Klopp had turned the club into one of the best in Europe while playing attacking, fast-paced football, yet by February of his final term, they sat bottom of the league. Dortmund felt it was time for a change, and in came Tuchel.
He had an immediate impact, introducing a positional style of football based on carefully passing the ball out of the defensive third and into attacking midfielders, who would overload the space behind the opponents’ midfielders. The system was centred around their three stars — playmaking center back Mats Hummels, creative box-to-box midfielder Ilkay Gündogan, and ultimate team player Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The style merged perfectly with the remaining influence of Klopp’s fast-paced pressing game and resulted in a team with intelligent positioning and build up as well as fast interplays and compact pressing.
When all three stars left last summer, Tuchel was forced to once again rebuild his squad. Unable to replace three unique players without breaking their strict wage structure, Dortmund opted to re-create the 23 goals and 32 assists of Mkhitaryan with promising-but-unproven then-19-year-old winger Ousmane Dembélé. Barcelona’s Marc Bartra was signed to play in Hummels’s role, yet the club failed to replace Gündogan’s crucial role in the midfield, despite Tuchel wanting young playmakers Óliver Torres and Mahmoud Dahoud.
Even with these setbacks, as well as the rise of Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, Dortmund are still on track to keep Champions League football next season. Tuchel adapted his approach to get the most out of a new-look squad, playing with a greater focus on the wings with wide forwards such as Dembélé, Marco Reus, and Christian Pulisic playing pivotal roles.
While Tuchel’s work puts a great emphasis on his ability to adapt to opponents, Wenger’s inflexibility has been one of Arsenal’s biggest shortcomings in recent years.
Although Arsenal moved to a 3–4–2–1 formation in mid-April and saw an upturn in results after a disastrous March, their performances didn’t justify the points haul. They took down Leicester on the back of an own goal, and they beat Southampton 2–0, despite an equal expected-goals split. Even in the 2–1 win against Middlesbrough — the league’s second-worst side — they conceded 1.6 expected goals and scored only 1.1. They might be playing a new formation, but the shortcomings that have been present throughout Wenger’s recent years were as relevant as ever.
In possession, Arsenal play with an improvisational style based on creative freedom and unfixed positions. While this approach is responsible for some beautiful combination goals, it’s also the root of their inability to break down the better-organized defenses of the top six. For Alexis Sánchez, Aaron Ramsey, and Mesut Özil to combine together, they must be closely positioned but under a free-form scheme; this happens far too rarely.
Like most modern sides, Arsenal look to press high to quickly regain the ball as soon as it’s lost. Except, just like their attack, the press often seems improvised and without direction. Most top sides base their pressure on a series of “triggers,” such as a backward pass, to signal when to move up and close down the opposition. But in Arsenal’s case, there doesn’t appear to be any cues. Instead, the press relies on the individual’s interpretation of the moment, so some players will close their man down while others hold their position. The lack of coordination almost inevitably leads to a drop in pressure and gaps becoming open.
The weakness of their press is never more obvious when it tries to stymie a top-tier attacking side. Against PSG in the Champions League last November, Unai Emery’s side intentionally looked to attract pressure so that they could play through the gaps that inevitably opened in midfield.
In the final month of the season, Arsenal’s formation change has led to a slight improvement in their pressing, but not nearly to the level of Klopp’s Liverpool, Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs, or Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Against their North London rivals, Arsenal sporadically pressed well but often struggled to close down the spaces in front of midfield.
Arsenal’s disorganized work, both with and without the ball, suggests a lack of tactics. Providing more defined guidance will be the no. 1 task for whoever replaces the 67-year-old Wenger, and Tuchel is the best available to do just that. When Klopp left Dortmund, their play in possession wasn’t too dissimilar to Arsenal’s currently. Their spacing across the pitch was unbalanced and led to a near-crippling weakness against teams who defended deep and compact, much like we saw with Liverpool this season.
Tuchel’s remedy was to introduce a form of Juego de Posición — a philosophy that provides the attack with clear positional guidelines to ensure an efficient spacing and well-linked shape. After just one preseason, the team looked like they had played under their new coach for years. The positional guidelines helped the players to remain connected with the ball and form the triangles that were missing in Klopp’s final year.
Ideologically, Tuchel is a good fit for Arsenal. Over the past two years, Dortmund have played with a fluid passing game reminiscent of Arsenal’s best times and, were Tuchel to take over, it’s unlikely that the pass-first style would change much. What will require work though, are the tactics behind the strategy. With the ball, Tuchel would likely introduce defined positional guidelines in order for Arsenal’s attacking flair to link up more consistently. Midfielders would provide more passing options for the center backs as they play out of the first third, and other attackers would ensure that Özil is surrounded by teammates in the final third, much like Mkhitaryan was last season.
Both Mainz and Dortmund pressed high under Tuchel, and Arsenal would be the same. But instead of the uncoordinated and hesitant efforts that characterize the current version of the Gunners, there would be a more deliberate and planned press. It would be a team-wide focus — not just Alexis Sánchez running in circles before handing in a transfer request to Bayern Munich.
Of course, replacing Wenger isn’t as simple as axing any other manager. With much greater control than your average coach, Wenger’s role is essentially that of the head coach and a director of football. So if they were to finally part ways this summer, Tuchel wouldn’t be the only appointment made over the summer.
Plus, there’s no guarantee that Wenger’s replacement will be an instant success. After 21 years under the French coach, it may take longer than hoped for the players to adapt to a new style of coaching. Even Pep Guardiola struggled to master the Premier League in his first year.
However, when a hierarchy that’s been in place for over two decades is upended, there’s an especially high level of uncertainty that comes with the coaching change — no matter who’s brought in. Arsenal and Wenger have stood still over past seasons while the majority of the Premier League’s elite improved under new managers. Now it’s time for them to do the same.